Monday, December 2, 2019

Snowblind: Remembrance of Blizzards Past

"One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six."
--Dylan Thomas, "A Child's Christmas in Wales"
Children in 1950's Wales.
Here in Duluth, Minnesota, last weekend we got clobbered by a powerful blizzard that filled the streets with snow and pounded the lakefront with huge breakers.The storm began haltingly Friday night. The next morning most of us were thinking that the dire forecast of 12+ inches with gale-force winds was going to turn out to be the usual empty hype. But it didn't.

Around 2 p.m. on Saturday, flurries started coming down. Then the wind picked up. I decided to venture out before the storm bore down for a walk with the dogs to the top of the hill in the park behind my house around 3:15. Three deer crossed the path into the park, heading into the woods. By the time we reached the top of the hill, the storm had significantly intensified. As we started down the steepest part of the trail, the wind-driven snow stung my eyes. The dogs' coats became snow-covered. To see where I was going, I had to shield my eyes with my choppers.
Three does entering the woods.
The dogs going up the hill.
Video: The blizzard on the trail.

The last ten minutes of the walk were quite unpleasant, with snow blasting into my face, filling the hood on my coat. The deer were barely visible by then in the blizzard, standing in the woods with their backs to the wind. At last, we made it to the shelter of the house, the dogs leaving puddles of slush on the floor inside.

Melting the snow indoors.

The blizzard raged on all night long, finally petering out in late morning Sunday. People began posting photos on social media and news media: kids snowboarding down city streets, cars completely covered in drifts, plows making huge snow ridges as they cleared snow from the roads, etc.
One of the photos I posted: my border collie Viggo wallowing in snow.
As I looked through the snowstorm gallery, it struck me that a number of the comments were along the lines of: "I remember blizzards like this years ago, when I was a kid."  Many people recalled Ye Tempests of Yesteryear as tremendous storms, far more impressive than those of today. Is this really true? I wondered.
"Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth" by J.M.W. Turner, 1842. Tate Gallery.

In the recorded history of weather in Minnesota, there have undoubtedly been terrific storms. For example, on March 8-9, 1892, a tremendously powerful blizzard struck Duluth. With 70 mph winds, blinding snow piled drifts over 20 feet high, blocking second-story windows in some buildings. By comparison, this most recent storm packed 35 mph sustained winds, gusting to 50, even 60 mph. While the winds weren't quite as powerful, the snowfall was one for the record books, the ninth highest two-day snowfall in city history. Between 18 and 24 inches of snow fell on Duluth, varying by neighborhood. Washburn, Wisconsin, on the south shore of Lake Superior, got dumped on with 31 inches of the white stuff. Decades from now, today's kids will be talking about the storm that closed the city and held it snowbound for days.
Plows clearing a street in Duluth on Sunday, December 1, 2019 (Photo: KBJR6)
A guy shoveling out his completely snow-covered car in Duluth (Photo by Kim Shute Mozell on Facebook)

As Dylan Thomas suggests, childhood memories often provide a exaggerated vision of reality, and adult memories can also be blurred and distorted by retrospection. I thought back to the most memorable storms for me: the 1950 Thanksgiving storm in Pittsburgh and the 1991 Halloween storm in Minnesota.

On Thanksgiving Day 1950, I can't even remember where we had dinner. Then, the next day, the snow began to fall. For three days, snow kept falling on the Pittsburgh area. By the end, the National Weather Service recorded 27.4 inches, a record that still stands. Many areas reported 30 to 40 inches. I remember the neighbors coming out into the snow-filled street to shovel out. No snowblowers, no fancy plows, just backbreaking shoveling. No snowtires. People had to put chains on their tires to get around the Pittsburgh hills. Schools and businesses were closed, the city paralyzed.

Pittsburghers shoveling out, 1950 (Photo: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
From my view on James Street in Munhall, it seemed the whole world was in the thrall of the white stuff. Everything was white. The snow was so deep, our sled just got stuck. My heavy wool coat and hat became soaked with melting snow after I came inside. It seemed it took forever for them to dry out. The only specific memory of that storm I retain is slogging through the snow over to my Aunt Estella's house on John Street, two blocks away, to help them eat leftovers. To me, the Pittsburgh Thanksgiving storm is unforgettable, a collage of images of a world turned cold and white.
A Pittsburgh streetcar passing a snowbound car after the 1950 storm. (Photo by Ethel Lloyd Papers)

Back in Minnesota, the most-remembered megastorm is the Halloween blizzard of 1991 (Why do these storms seem to hit on holidays?) I was living in Minneapolis then. My daughter Ceridwen and her friend Colin came to the house after school on Halloween--and Colin didn't make it home that evening. The snow fell heavy and hard for hours. All evening, we kept looking outside, amazed at the snow piling up in the street and yard. When day dawned on November 1st, 28 inches of snow were on the ground. Shoveling out the driveway and walk took hours. There was nowhere to put the snow. Good luck getting the snowblower out of the garage, and if you did, it couldn't throw the snow high enough over the surrounding piles of snow. It took Minneapolis many days to get the streets cleared. St. Paul gave up on plowing, and until the spring thaw, motorists bumped over grooves and ridges of packed snow and ice to get around the city. This storm affected not only the Twin Cities, but much of the state. Duluth got a whopping, paralyzing 37"--a statewide record that still stands.
Downtown Minneapolis after the 1991 storm (Photo: NWS)

Digging out in Duluth, 1991 (Photo: Fox 21)
Those are the big snowstorms I remember especially, and others who lived through them have their own unique memories. We have Dylan Thomas to thank for his wonderful child's recollections of Christmas snows in Wales. Life would be duller without those fantastic, fanciful images recalling the storms of bygone years. Cherish the memories.

"Years and years ago, when I was a boy, when there were wolves in Wales, and birds the color of red-flannel petticoats whisked past the harp-shaped hills, when we sang and wallowed all night and day in caves that smelt like Sunday afternoons in damp front farmhouse parlors, and we chased, with the jawbones of deacons, the English and the bears, before the motor car, before the wheel, before the duchess-faced horse, when we rode the daft and happy hills bareback, it snowed and it snowed."

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